"You always knew who was smoking when their hotel rooms smelled like Bath & Body Works," Al Harrington says, laughing, as he remembers the days when cannabis use in the NBA was frowned upon.
A sixteen-year career in the NBA, with two of those years in Denver, showed Harrington how much of America didn't accept cannabis, yet he's been able to play the pot game effectively. The East Coast native has maintained connections with NBA players and executives while steadily growing his cannabis brand, Viola, and becoming a go-to face for athletes in cannabis.
Named after his deceased grandmother and founded in Denver, Viola is now a nationally known brand — thanks in part to products launched in partnership with NBA great Allen Iverson and a recent CBD deal with the NBA Players Association. Why are all these things falling Harrington's way? He's a cool guy and his company extracts some damn fine hash, for starters, but strong roots in cannabis and pro sports don't hurt. We recently caught up with Harrington, who now lives in California with his family, to learn more about both worlds.
Westword: Do you still visit Denver nowadays?
Al Harrington: Yep, all the time.
Do you think it's changed much since you played here?
Oh, my God — it's a whole new place. It's crazy to go down Speer Boulevard and see all of those apartments. The city has grown tremendously since I played there ten years ago.
Does that make Denver more attractive?
I think so. Denver has always been a great place to live. I know a lot people who have left California and Chicago and places like that for Colorado. I loved it there and seriously considered retiring there, as well. It's a beautiful city. Seeing all of the growth is a good and bad thing. Now it's really crowded, and there's traffic. I remember when there wasn't any traffic in Denver, but that's what happens when you become a desirable city, I guess.
As a basketball fan, it was cool to see Allen Iverson join the cannabis industry through his new partnership with you and Viola. That took some convincing on your end, though. Why was that so important to you?
I just think about my background and where my strengths lie in regard to relationships. I really want to change the stigma around cannabis, and part of that is figuring out what microphones and platforms we can use. Allen Iverson is a culture icon. It took me two and a half years to convince him to do this, so it wasn't just some money grab for him. Now he believes in this and how we want to use our platform to bring other people of color along in this industry. I've always felt I've been talking to a certain demographic, but adding someone like him allows us to push our narrative and objective on a whole new level while creating a great product we can both stand by.
Allen Iverson definitely helped America evolve culturally in the early 2000s, me included.
He's evolved a lot of things. A lot of the things he stood for and believed at the time, he ended up being right about. It just came out later. Like that whole "practice" thing: I always make fun of it, but now teams don't practice at all [laughs]. Now it's about allowing players to recover and play at the highest level each night. When he said that at the time, people called him a spoiled baby, but now look at where we are today. They say that pioneers always come back with arrows in their backs.
"Bubba Chuck" is a well-known nickname of Iverson's, and Bubba Kush is a classic strain. Any chance of a Bubba Chuck Kush one day?
Obviously, Bubba Kush is a strain of weed, but it's not as popular anymore. It is in certain regions, though, so whenever we get East Coast licenses in the Maryland or Virginia area, I think we might drop a Bubba Chuck Kush. It's still popular out there. In other places, it might be kind of hard to make a Bubba Chuck Kush without any Bubba in there.
Viola obviously has some famous connections thanks to you and Iverson, but you've never really trafficked in celebrity. Why not go the endorsement route more often?
For us, it's tough. This brand is not just something that was made out of thin air. This has my grandmother's name on it. My aunts will keep me honest on social media posts they see. They ask me stuff like, "Do you think Grandma would like that post? Because her name is on it." I'm dead serious. It's some funny shit, and I usually end up taking the post down. But that keeps us honest and allows us to stay focused on the main thing, which is about the flower, wellness and helping people. That's who our grandmother was. So before I pimp our brand out for more notoriety, we try to be very conscious to stick to our roots while conducting business under the watchful eye of my grandmother.
Do you watch a lot of basketball nowadays?
Oh, yeah. I have a suite in Staples Center, and I'm thinking about getting one in Detroit. I love the game.
Last time we spoke, in 2018, you hoped the NBA's collective bargaining agreement would loosen cannabis restrictions for players. As we near negotiations for collective bargaining in 2024, do you think some progress will be made there?
A lot of major sports leagues, including the NBA, don't randomly test for it anymore. But at the end of the day, this is a business, and [the owners] are going to use this as a bargaining chip. They'll say, "Okay, players. You want cannabis, then you're going to have to give up X." So it's a business thing now, and we just have to wait for them to go through that process.
Professional sports have been quick to cozy up with sports gambling companies now that it's federally legal. Could cannabis take a similar path?
I don't think NBA teams are looking at cannabis as a money generator for their organizations just yet. The first thing they wanted was to get the players out of harm's way. Guys were getting suspended and losing paychecks, and for what? A lot of teams are in markets where cannabis is recreationally legal. So who would tell me that I can drink liquor but I can't go to another store to buy an edible? It just doesn't make sense. So first it's about getting the players out of harm's way, and then you'll see partnerships.
That reminds me of when Carmelo Anthony got caught with cannabis in 2004. I was in elementary school at the time, and it felt like this hero of mine let me down — all over a bag of weed.
It's totally different now, but I get it. Whenever I saw that article or SportsCenter hit at the time, I was probably like, "What the fuck is Melo doing?," too. Now that I've realized how important cannabis is to overall health and wellness, I feel foolish for feeling like that. You realize almost twenty years later how stupid some of this is.